Today, Nanoha Reflection is arriving in American theaters, after its release half a year ago in Japan. With that, the Nanoha series has refocused on its original leads after leaving them as side characters at best in anime for the last 10 years. Don’t get me wrong. I love the Vivid girls and I particularly love Vivid Strike, even though that show made a point not to display Nanoha or Fate. But I fell in love with the show that was entirely carried by the narratives of those two characters, so I’m incredibly happy to see them finally return in anime form.
Nanoha is a relatively well-liked series. It’s hardly blowing up the charts anymore, but it still has a reasonable cult following, and at one point it was easily one of the biggest anime franchises in otaku culture. Despite that, it isn’t all that beloved from a critical perspective. Certainly, people will respect it for having heart or containing some interesting concepts, but it’s hardly looked at by most critical fans as a fantastic series. It’s not the kind of show which gets a ton of analysis about it and the little that’s there is quite critical.
To me though, Nanoha is an absolutely amazing show. Even the first season, which many fans will tell you to skip in favor of the movie, is something I love. Certainly, the show is not without problems. The pacing is unfortunately weird, it never looks that great, certain elements can feel nonsensical, there’s some unnecessary and creepy fanservice, and its first few episodes feel like some kind of Cardcaptor Sakura rip-off. But it has so many good elements, from Nanoha’s questioning of her role in life to Fate’s entire story. I adore a billion aspects of Nanoha, enough that I can easily love the show wholeheartedly in spite of its numerous problems. But the element which truly sets it apart and has made it one of my favorite shows is NanoFate.
Even from my first watch, I liked Nanoha a lot. Certainly, those first three episodes weren’t the most enjoyable to get through, but Nanoha as a character was fun and as soon as Fate arrived, the show had me hooked. Given that Madoka may have been the only magical girl show I’d seen to that point, I was shocked to know that other anime in the genre could get this dark, and Fate’s story revolving around her mother instantly endeared her to me for life. I wanted to see Nanoha and Fate do well, and the show’s clear romantic overtones between them only increased that. All the other stuff was somewhat throwaway but the core was so strong that it more than balanced out.
A’s took that strong setup and ran with it. While it’s still a show with a lot of weird elements, it’s a lot more consistent in its quality than the original. Gone is the 4 episode wait for the show’s plot to really start, as is the fact that the central conceit — interdimensional space travel — only shows up halfway through the show. It’s a season with just as much heart but much better craft. Hayate and the Wolkenritter’s story is almost as powerful as Fate’s and the way the show builds up Nanoha and Fate’s relationship is wonderful. In this short span of time, they’ve gone from mortal enemies to the best of “friends” who mutually uplift one another and help each other through tough situations. They’re the kind of couple that’s defined enough that you can imagine their lives without one another, but they’d markedly worse off.
And then Strikers basically abandons any pretenses and goes full gay. Their adoption of Vivio was excellent and while the show still has a number of issues, from awkward pacing to somewhat flat villains, I was able to fall in love with it. Subaru and Teana’s subplots were great and Nanofate in this season was beyond perfect. More than that though, I was deeply affected by Vivio’s arc. Even beyond the fact that it made Nanoha and Fate even gayer, seeing her quickly come to see them as her mothers before being ripped away was brutal and their eventual reunion was amazing. The setpieces are cool, the emotions run deep, and it’s just all-around my favorite season. I’ll never forget moments like Nanoha lecturing Teana for going overboard, or Vita going berserk after realizing she was fighting the machines that injured Nanoha.
And so I completed Nanoha’s main installments. It was certainly a show I liked a lot. Nanofate had quickly become one of my favorite ships of all time, something that wasn’t going to change anytime soon. But I could hardly call Nanoha a favorite of mine at this point. The consistent pacing and visual issues across all three seasons had a serious impact on my enjoyment. Certainly, the main emotional arcs for our characters are excellent, and it’s that strong characterization which makes Nanoha work so well as a series, but there were just too many flaws for me to ignore.
And then came the doujinshi. Nanoha has a massive number of doujin manga, and when we ignore the shitty awful ones where Nanoha and Fate have sex with faceless men or Yuuno, the majority are easily Nanofate. I absolutely devoured these manga. Like I said, it was one of my favorite ships, and reading romantic doujins is something I really enjoy doing for shows that produce a lot of them, such as this one.
As I read these doujins, from fantastic artists like Mekimeki Oukoku, Koguro, Nanashiki, and many others, I began to feel differently about Nanoha, Fate, and even other members of the cast. Like I said, I already loved them a lot, but reading these stories only increased the amount I cared about them. Seeing how Nanoha and Fate would behave in different situations, seeing the depths of their love for one another — admittedly in non-canon material — only made it easier to love them as people while increasing my desire to see them succeed.
It’s a pretty widely-accepted fact that the way we interpret media is based on our environments and experiences. For instance, a person who has suffered abuse at the hands of their parents might be able to relate to Fate to a greater extent than I ever could. Someone who’s been adopted into a loving family might relate to Vivio on a deeper level. We all accept that these things are normal and can happen, that it’s totally valid to like a show more or less because you relate to it or because you’re simply predisposed to like or dislike certain things due to your experiences in life.
Given that, it should come as no surprise that fan material can have an effect on how you perceive the official material. A lesbian might like Nanoha and Fate’s relationship more than a straight woman. Similarly, someone who’s read 100 Nanofate doujins might like their relationship more than someone who’s read 0. This is a directly correlated thing — you have to like Nanofate in the first place to read or look at material based on them, but doing so only increases the amount you like them, which feeds back into searching for more material. It creates an interesting feedback loop where consuming fan material continuously boosts the amount you’re into characters or a ship.
Putting my theorizing on fan material’s validity as a source of endearment aside, this was basically my experience. All the Nanofate manga I read and drawings I looked at made me fall in love with them to an even greater extent, both as characters and as a couple. It even made me like some other characters as well, since Vivio, Einhart, Hayate, and many more showed up frequently and had their personalities expanded upon.
Because of that, I perceived Nanoha in a totally different way when I finally got around to rewatching it. Those first three episodes before Fate arrives went from a slog to fantastic, a great look at how Nanoha’s life was before they met, how she felt out of place with her family, before falling for Fate at first sight and finally discovering her place in the world. Fate’s story went from a touching and fantastic portrayal of the harm inflicted by parental abuse to that times a hundred, something that left me a mess. Seeing Nanoha and Fate tearfully bid one another goodbye at the end of the season went from a nice, romantic moment to an event which left me in tears and served as the start of my favorite relationship in all of anime. None of the problems in the show actually disappeared, but because I cared so much more about the characters and their relationship now, they became less distracting, to the point where I barely noticed them.
And the same applies to A’s and Strikers. Those two seasons were already better than the first, so the power they gained as a result of my increased interest in Nanofate easily elevated them, and thus the Nanoha series as well, into a place in my favorite shows.
People often act as if fan material — from fan art, to fanfics, to doujinshi — are at most a fun diversion, not works deserving of respect on their own. But I vehemently disagree. Were it not for the Nanofate manga, this show wouldn’t be a favorite of mine. I’m very happy to love Nanoha as much as I do — for all of its problems it’s a deeply warm series with so many great messages and moments that it’s impossible to count them all. It’s thanks to those many talented artists that I can proudly say Nanoha is one of my favorite shows.
Though I have to thank the staff as well. It’s not as if Nanofate became one of the most popular yuri ships in anime history purely on the back of doujin artists randomly deciding they were good. Tsuzuki’s writing is what made them stand out in the first place. As I said, even with its many problems, Nanoha’s strong front has always been how good of a job it does at making its central character subplots work. It took a lot of effort to make a couple so strong that, even without a kiss or any explicit verbal confirmation, nearly everyone accepts that they’re married. It is, as far as I’m aware, the first example of an anime where the main characters are not only gay but adopt a child together. It’s the fan creators who really carried it all the way for me, but the show itself certainly got the ball rolling in a fantastic way.
Sometimes, the impetus for loving a show can be small. Nanoha isn’t something I fell in love with due to its excellent visuals, writing, or craft in general. Sure, there are many aspects of those that I like, from the voice work to the character writing. But it’s Nanofate made me love the show and I’m proud to admit that. We don’t need all of our favorites to have some grand narrative behind them — simply liking one aspect, which leads you to like the rest, is enough, even when that aspect is fan material.
At this point, I truly love all of Nanoha’s anime adaptations, and most of the side material as well. I’m so happy to see my girls on-screen again and I can’t wait to see where the franchise goes in the future. The fact that this weird spin-off to a mediocre at best eroge is still alive almost 15 years later is a miracle in itself. The fact that the same franchise has perhaps the longest ongoing gay relationship in anime is an even larger miracle. Let’s keep that miracle going.